Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Japan's Great White Whale 

[Cross-posted on The Head Heeb]

Now and again, international organizations anger some of their member states. They don't authorize invasions, for example. Or they make it harder to get out of paying fines for breaking the rules. Usually the crisis passes, everyone makes nice, and some kind of compromise is reached which allows the institution to continue its existence.

Sometimes, however, a rebuffed state decides to quit playing along. It doesn't happen very often (the only time I can think of this happening is when the US withdrew from UNESCO in 1984), but sometimes enough is apparently enough.

The BBC reports today that Japan is considering dropping out of the International Whaling Commission and setting up its own rival international governing body:
Japan has drawn up plans to replace the International Whaling Commission, whose annual meeting will start on 19 July. The IWC remains deadlocked between the countries opposed to a resumption of commercial whaling and those, led by Japan, which say it should go ahead.

Members of Japan's ruling party now say they are prepared to go it alone and establish a new pro-whaling alliance. They say in any case they may withhold part of their subscription to the IWC, in protest at its conservation work...

Conservationists have claimed for years that Japan was buying up small nations by offering them aid if they would vote its way at the IWC. The paper confirms Japan believes it is succeeding in winning the whaling argument...

The pro-whaling bloc could win a symbolically important vote to end the whaling moratorium, but a simple majority would make no practical difference: a 75% vote is needed for that.
Why is a breakdown of the IWC suddenly more plausible? And why would Japan want to bother setting up a rival institution? My guess is that this is a power play: Japan craves the legitimacy that the IWC's blessing could confer on changes to its whaling policy, so it won't just start slaughtering whales willy-nilly.

So far, Japan has attempted to get the IWC to agree to its demands in two way: buying votes and threatening to quit. But the requisite supermajority of IWC members won't go along with Japan's goals, despite attempts to buy them off. Furthermore, Japan has been making noises about leaving the IWC for some time, but other states have repeatedly called Japan's bluff. In order to break the logjam, Japan has to find some way of making the other states believe it is truly serious about leaving the IWC.

Forming a new institution, which is costly, difficult, and time-consuming, could possibly serve as a way of making Japan's exit threat much more believable. This theory could explain why the LDP's policy paper (cited by the BBC article) has been made public: it's an attempt to convince IWC states that Japan is really, really serious this time. If the policy works, we might expect the IWC to find some kind of compromise that reflects Japan's stronger bargaining position.

In any case, state exit from international institutions is not a question that has gotten a lot of attention in political science. As far as I know (which isn't all that far) this paper, which explains the US decision to leave UNESCO in terms of a broader US strategy for dealing with the UN, is the only paper on the topic. Too bad: it's an interesting question.

UPDATE: An astute reader has pointed out to me some other examples of state withdrawal from international organizations: the US dropped out of UNCTAD and UNIDO, and the UK briefly dropped of UNESCO as well. If we count alliances, there are a number of examples as well, such as New Zealand's withdrawal from ANZUS (which clearly had little to do with the dynamic I've described above).

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